The past year saw latent conflicts erupting in countries like the Central African Republic and South Sudan, ongoing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar intensifying, and protests bordering on conflict exploding in Ukraine and Venezuela. The negative correlation between freedom of information and conflicts was underscored by Freedom House’s annual country ratings. Globally, press freedom levels were at their lowest in a decade in 2013.
In the midst of these disturbing developments, geopolitical trends are increasingly restricting the work of both national and international media and human rights organisations. The space is closing for the democracy and human rights agenda, a trend which started in the former Soviet Union, but now radiates from a wide range of countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America in which IMS works. Laws restricting foreign funding for domestic non-governmental organisations and hostility towards those engaging in democracy and rights support are a serious challenge for organisations like IMS in the years to come. Careful, strategic and innovative thinking will be required to overcome these barriers to enable media to support democratic development.
From the outset, IMS has worked in conflict, helping local journalists and media houses to survive and continue operating during a crisis while at the same time enabling media to contribute towards peace and stability.
In a year that would become one of the most violent ever for Afghan journalists with the country facing milestone elections and plans for international withdrawal of troops, IMS’ countrywide safety mechanism for journalists locally driven by the Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee (AJSC) was source of direct, lifesaving support for journalists across the country. The AJSC again showed its worth as a model for driving a countrywide safety mechanism for journalists by using its countrywide alert text message system to inform journalists quickly about the elections and security threats.
In Ukraine, when violent demonstrations began in November 2013, IMS was also able to respond quickly by way of our local IMS presence and trusted Ukrainian partner Media Law Institute, which provided legal counseling to those journalists attacked by security forces.
Short-term emergency responses during conflict should ideally pave the way for longer term development initiatives that address the main pillars of a well-functioning media sector: an environment with media laws that protect the rights of journalists; strong associations that advocate the rights of media; and professional media content that keeps citizens well-informed. This is also what we characterise as our broad media sector approach. We assess and map the key areas of a country’s media sector and then prioritise our work according to where IMS can add value.
The formal registration of Libya’s first national media training facility in 2013, the Libya Media Institute, is a prime example of this. What began as a short-term media assessment mission in 2011 was followed by two years of persistent efforts to bring together Libyan media partners in a highly polarised environment around the common goal of establishing a national institute for media. The Institute in Tripoli now not only provides a neutral place for media development, but also a space where broader common media challenges can be addressed.
Again in 2013, the formation of partnerships and networks was a fundamental instrument for IMS in addressing the challenges of media globally. In Syria, IMS and more than a dozen international media development organisations are now working to more effectively respond to immediate challenges of media in the country and on a joint strategic vision for media in Syria under the auspices of the Global Forum for Media Development. This is happening in close consultation with Syrian media partners that work inside Syria to ensure that the Syrian people has access to reliable information.
In Somalia, the establishment of the country’s first network of 18 Somali radios which will work to strengthen the media sector and produce joint programming to promote peace and development was a crucial outcome of efforts to promote partnerships amongst local media actors in a fractured country and to ensure access to information.
Framed by the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, IMS, Open Society Foundations, UNESCO and national partners promoted the set-up of national safety mechanisms for journalists in contrast to ad-hoc safety initiatives in Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal, South Sudan, Colombia and Honduras. An in-depth understanding of the political dynamics that influence the media safety environment in each country is key to this work.
While developments within media freedom in 2013 painted a largely grim picture, there were also highlights brought about through the work of our committed partners.
In Myanmar, the space for freedom of media continued to expand slowly in the midst of democratic reform. In a major achievement, IMS together with local and international partners joined forces to design plans for the country’s first journalism school set to open in 2014. In Bhutan, the government’s goal to develop a democratic media sector allowed IMS to provide input to the country’s draft access to information law together with the Centre for Law and Democracy.
I want to thank our partners and colleagues around the world who courageously make change happen while working in the world’s most dangerous environments for media. The space for Freedom of Expression may be shrinking, but there is no shortage of those fighting to expand it.